Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Do I Hear A Waltz?

Why do I so love the score of A Little Night Music? Is it because I love a waltz? Well, I do. In the olden days, waltzing backstage was my way of loosening up before going onstage.

The other reason I love Stephen Sondheim’s score to A Little Night Music is that -- I believe -- the structure of a waltz throughout the play freed him to write creative melodies and lyrics in this his most heartfelt play. Yes, the lyrics and characters are terribly clever and witty, but they are also utterly ruled by their feelings, not their minds. In a Sondheim play. It’s marvelous.

I did not see the original cast of this production earlier this year, so no comparisons would be appropriate. The only comparison I can make is to the original cast recording I’ve been listening to and singing along with for decades.

I miss the orchestra.

This is not to say that the tiny group of musicians led by Music Director Rob Bowman isn’t a good deal more than competent, but that lush sound the glamorous life deserves is missing.

Moving on: The Quintet as Overture (and later Greek Chorus, except much funnier) is just marvelous:

  • Stephen R. Buntrock
  • Sara Jean Ford
  • Betsy Morgan
  • Jane Paterson
  • Kevin David Thomas

And of course we look at them and imagine who’s understudying whom. The opening is clever, explaining how this single set will serve all scenes equally, and it does. It’s efficient and discreetly attractive, parts of it opening and closing and expanding and reflecting as needed. No need to try to sing this set, it gave all focus to the humans onstage – who were rather drably attired (with the obvious exception of Desirée), but this was of no consequence to me. Set, lights, costumes, sound design, all of this was inconspicuous enough to make sure our focus was entirely on the story being told, the hearts being stolen, the hearts being broken, and those smiles of a summer night – as explained by Madame Armfeldt, first a smile for the very young, who know nothing; next, a smile for fools, who know too little; and finally a smile for the old, those who know too much.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1956 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the play is set in the turn of the last century (that is, 1800s into 1900s) in Sweden, where the summer nights last either much too long or never long enough. Hugh Wheeler fashioned a straightforward and farcical story and book of love missed, love lost, love mistaken; the foibles and foolishness of men and women; and the wisdom of little girls and very old women.

A Little Night Music is a delightful musical play. Trevor Nunn’s production in this its second incarnation moves surely through three hours only marred by the uncomfortable seats at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

This production is an import from the Menier Chocolate Factory, but the only actor from across the Pond is Alexander Hanson as Frederik Egerman, lawyer, lover, and foolish husband of a child bride. This actor is a gift. His voice is true and clear and lovely, his timing hilarious, his face expressive -- he’s having a wonderful time and so are we. His Frederik is charming, and his child bride a nitwit.

Ramona Mallory sings Anne Egerman (wait, Mallory? The original cast included Victoria Mallory as Anne. Hmm.). She’s adorable, she’s a coquette, she’s a ninny, taunting Henrik and Frederik unknowingly. Her voice is sweet and clear and her journey totally believable.

And Henrik, Frederik’s son from a previous marriage, smitten with God, sex, and his stepmother. Ah, choices, choices. Henrik’s essence is expressed in his line about the music he plays – “It isn’t gloomy. It’s profound.” He is sorrowfully played by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who bows the cello competently, and makes the third in one of my favorite numbers ever – that is, the combination of Frederik’s “Now,” Anne’s “Soon,” and his own hilarious “Later.” Each song alone is brilliant, revelatory of character and setting up the story of the Egerman family. The joining of the three monologues in counterpoint has always delighted me.

A few years back I had the good fortune to see Patty Lupone as Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” and the extra bit of luck to see Leigh Ann Larkin as “Dainty June.” Well Dainty June is all growed up here as Petra, the raunchy serving girl to the Egerman household, and totally inappropriate confidante to Anne. She’s quite delightful in Act I’s closer, “A Weekend in the Country,” but her second act should-be-showstopper, “The Miller’s Son,” was rather disappointing. Larkin and the musicians were not in sync, and she appeared to be doing an overly choreographed (rather puerile, really) act instead of singing the song to us.

Katherine McNamara played little Frederika on the night I saw the play. A marvelous voice came out of this little girl, although I could hear her “Acting” most of the time. She’ll grow out of that, won’t she?

The absurd Dragoon, lover of Desirée Armfeldt, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm could be a tin soldier, but happily Aaron Lazar not only sings beautifully, he’s funny. He plays the chauvinist fool awfully well, singing “In Praise of Women” marvelously, then fools us into a laugh. Delightful.

Then came Erin Davie as Countess Charlotte Malcolm, the Dragoon’s long-suffering wife, who happens to have a sister who was the classmate of Anne….which lead us to the brilliant duet, “Every Day a Little Death.” Davie’s voice is resonant and deep, her acting sensitive, her characterization of this pained, loving/hating woman is gorgeous. I quite adored her. In fact, hers was my favorite performance in the play.

Say what?

I didn’t actually know that until I wrote it. She was certainly my favorite female performance. Davie had not a single wrong note, literally or figuratively. She delighted me every moment she was on stage. Joy.

The great Elaine Stritch is … Elaine Stritch. I saw her some nonsensical number of years ago in “Company,” and she has always been a kick, a scream, a hearty laugh, a tough cookie, a real broad. Adoration is fair to state. As Madame Armfeldt, she’s hilarious. She makes the musicians follow her in “Liaisons,” during which I could not tell if she was acting forgetful or couldn’t quite recall what the next line was. Her presence onstage is riveting, her comic timing perfection. My only issue is that she was not and never will be in the same universe or century as the Egermans, the Malcolms, or the other Armfeldts. Therefore she pulls the audience out of the play, out of the story, totally dispelling the suspension of disbelief. The place she takes us is a hoot, it’s fabulous, but it disrupts the play. In my humble opinion.

At last, Desirée. Desirée Armfeldt who must have a distinct public persona and a distinct private persona. Desirée whose signature song has been sung by everybody in the last 30-odd years. Bernadette Peters is a goddess of the American stage. What we saw onstage with the great Ms. Peters was a star who connected with all around her. A brief moment during the “Night Waltz” overture, the traveling actress in “The Glamorous Life,” and that woman who responded to Frederik when he entered her room in Act I. By the time we get to her private moment with Frederik in Act II, her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is beautiful and riveting. She is broken, she is cynical, she is sweet, she is loving, she is wise. Peters’ way of singing that song is the right way.

My only issues with Ms. Peters came in the first Act, in her public persona – of course the “Famous Actress Desirée Armfeldt” behaves differently than the woman alone with her daughter, her mother, her former lover. But it felt forced, more like Ms. Peters did not entirely trust us, her loving audience, to recognize subtler differences in her public and private behavior.

In short: I was a touch disappointed in a few scenes with Desirée or Petra, and I never for a moment mistook Elaine Stritch for Madame Armfeldt, but totally adored Frederik, Charlotte, Carl-Magnus, and the Quintet. Most importantly, I love this play and this score. I reveled in the lustily drawn human beings loving life and each other and singing out about it with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim.

A Little Night Music is a Joy.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, still listening to the decades old recording of the score…

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